Garner Cleveland Record

Feds’ ruling could ease Wake’s path to income-based assignment

Federal officials have opened the door for Wake County to reintroduce students’ family income as a basis for school assignments.

U.S. Department of Agriculture attorneys say Wake can use data on students who receive subsidized lunches to balance schools by family income as long as the process doesn’t result in the identification of individual students.

A letter this past May from the federal education department’s Office for Civil Rights, obtained this week through an open-records request, lays out parameters for Wake’s use of the information, which the Agriculture Department had ruled off limits in 2011. Family income determines eligibility for subsidized lunches.

The news could re-ignite a fierce debate over busing students to achieve diversity goals, which opponents cited to help vote in a Republican-controlled board in 2009.

Last month, the Democratic-backed board elected in 2011 modified the assignment policy to include a goal of “minimizing high concentrations of students from low-income families at each school.”

“Having high concentrations of poverty, based on decades of research, has an effect on performance,” board Vice Chairwoman Christine Kushner, a Democrat, said Wednesday. “We can’t ignore that.”

The news was welcomed also by Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow with the progressive Century Foundation and an advocate of socioeconomic diversity. He said that more than 80 districts across the nation – including San Francisco and Iowa City – use socioeconomic diversity as a factor in student assignments. But federal officials had previously discouraged the use of subsidized lunch data.

“There had been some uncertainty in the issue,” he said. “This goes a long way toward resolving it.”

But for critics, the news signifies a return to the old days of Wake’s busing some students long distances to achieve socioeconomic diversity.

“Here we go again,” said Terry Stoops, director of education studies for the conservative John Locke Foundation.

Starting in 2000, Wake tried to keep each school from enrolling more than 40 percent of students who received subsidized lunches. The policy, which replaced the use of race-based assignments, relied on research showing that, on average, school performance drops as the number of low-income students increases.

Use of the data

Supporters of the policy argued that it helped school performance and made it easier to retain experienced teachers who didn’t want to work in high-poverty schools.

But critics noted that Wake’s low-income students posted lower test scores and graduation rates than their peers in the rest of the state.

In 2009, Cynthia Long, director of the Agriculture Department’s Child Nutrition Division, which oversees the school lunch program, said Wake had to discontinue the use of school lunch data for assignment purposes unless it gave prior notice and received consent from the children’s parents.

But Wake officials justified continued use of the data because they were looking at the poverty information for small neighborhoods, called nodes, and not at the economic status of individual students.

However, the department in February 2011 told Wake that it could not use the data at the node level either.

In March 2012, Rachel Bishop, senior counsel with the department’s Office of The General Counsel, told Wake that the 2011 opinion was “inaccurate.”

In a letter May 21 to Wake, Alice Wender, director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, wrote that Bishop told her that Wake could use the lunch data as long as individual students’ identities were protected.

Wender also wrote that Bishop invited Wake to work with the department and the N.C. Department of Public Instruction on how to use the data for assignments. That idea is unwelcome to education analysts and others who oppose diversity policies as “social engineering.”

Being ‘deliberative’

School board member John Tedesco, a Republican, said the change would mean a return to quotas, where the focus is lost on individual students.

“The individual needs of each of our children need to be looked at, not the aggregate needs of the school system,” he said.

Wender’s letter is dated the same day that the school board approved a modified assignment policy. Kushner and fellow Democratic board member Jim Martin said the permission to use school-lunch data will only help make future student assignment plans better.

“Whenever we have more tools and data to do our decision-making, that’s important,” Kushner said.

Other factors that are supposed to guide future student assignment plans include minimizing the concentrations of low-performing students at each school, efficiently filling schools, and providing stability and proximity for families.

Kushner said the goal is to balance all the factors and avoid the large-scale annual reassignments in the past that upset families.

“We want to be a school board that is very deliberative,” she said.